Let us return to the salons where we will meet a genuine honnête homme, Charles Perrault (1628-1703). Charles Perrault was born to an affluent upper-bourgeoisie family, but although he worked at the court of Louis XIV, the Sun-King, he was not an aristocrat. By then, the middle to late seventeenth century, préciosité was no longer ridicule, but salonniers and salonnières were still writing. They preferred short, ingenuous and witty poems: épigrammes, madrigals (poems not songs), impromptus, compliments, portraits…
We may have left the country of Tendre, but fantasy remains and, by the end of the century, Charles Perrault is publishing fairy tales. He was a regular at his niece’s salon, Mademoiselle Lhéritier’s salon. But he was also a regular at the Comtesse d’Aulnoy’s salons. The Comtesse d’Aulnoy was a prolific writer of fairy tales.
Charles Perrault was no ordinary writer. He was in fact a member of the French Academy, which places him among the best writers of his century. He wrote abundantly, but we will not go beyond a late book, completed in 1697, his Contes du Temps passé or Contes de ma mère l’Oye: The Tales of Mother Goose.
Linguists may argue, perhaps successfully, that “ma mère l’Oye” is “ma mère Louyse,” or Louise. That would make perfect sense, were it not that tradition has its own imperatives. Perrault’s collection contains Sleeping Beauty (La Belle au bois dormant), Bluebeard (La Barbe bleue), Cinderella (Cendrillon), The Little Red Riding Hood (Le Petit Chaperon Rouge), Riquet with the Tuft (Riquet à la Houppe), Puss in Boots (Le Chat maître ou Le Chat botté), Little Tom Thumb (Le Petit Poucet) and the lesser known The Fairies (Les Fées).
These are the classics of the magical land of fairy tales, where a cat wearing boots can turn his master, the third son of a miller, into a prince, and where a fairy godmother can tranform a child from a previous marriage, who now sweeps the chimney, into a princess: Cinderella. The shoe fits. All the tales begin with an evocation of the past: Once upon a time. Things magical or le merveilleux are best told using a past tense. In fact, the formulaic “[o]nce upon a time,” helps take the reader or listener away from the here and now.
Consequently, literally speaking, Charles Perrault, did not invent the fairy tale. His tales and other tales find their origin in extremely old stories, including the Sanskrit Pañcatantra. Many have also belonged to an ageless oral tradition, before entering the realm of literature (learned tradition). Finally, they had already left the oral tradition in Italy.
Perrault’s Italian sources are Giambattista Basile, Straparola and Boccaccio. Basile (1575-1632) is the author of Lo cunto de li cunti overo la trattenemiento de peccerile, The Tale of Tales or Entertainment for Little Ones, also known as the Il Pentamerone (1634). As for Gionvanni Francesco Straparola (c.1480-c.1557), he is the author of Le piacevoli notti (The Facetious Nights), a work modeled on Giovanni Boccacio’s (1313-1375) Decameron.
Yet, although the stories were known, they could be compared to a canvas. One had to fill in the plot and fill it in a refined manner. Lewdness had to be removed from the canvases Perrault inherited or imported. Moreover, Basile’s Italian was not easily read, even by Italians. So much so that re-telling conferred a degree of authorship on the re-teller.
In the Preface to his edition of Perrault’s Contes, Gilbert Rouget quotes four lines of a poem by Charles Perrault, quoted by M. Loeffler-Delachaux:
…c’est la manière/ Dont quelque chose est inventé/ Qui beaucoup plus que la matière/ De tout récit fait la beauté.
(It is the manner in which something is invented [written], rather than the subject-matter, that makes a narrative beautiful [my translation]).
Using such a criterion, yes, Charles Perrault did invent the fairy tale. And using such a criterion, La Fontaine is the author of his Fables. In the French language, no one has matched the extraordinary beauty of La Fontaine rendition of Æsop or Pilpay’s fables. I doubt that anyone would even try to improve on La Fontaine.
In the seventeenth-century, originality was not demanded of writers. The goal of writers was to re-tell a comedy, a tragedy, or some other literary work, in as eloquent a manner as the original author. Molière and Racine were, to a large extent, authors and copyists. The seventeenth century is aptly called “the age of eloquence.” In fact, in the area of fables and fairy tales, copyists are re-telling the story rather substantially.
Perrault Contes were an immense success. But Perrault is also the author of verse tales: Grisélidis (1691), The Foolish Wishes (Les Souhaits ridicules, 1693) , and Donkey-Skin (Peau d’Âne, 1694). Interestingly, he also wrote an Apologie des femmes (In Defence of Women, 1694) and numerous texts that are not salon literature. Perrault who loved salons developed a great deal of admiration for women. Had he not been an habitué of salons, he would not have played so immense a role in literature.
At one point, précieux and précieuses went too far, as depicted in Molière’s Précieuses ridicules (1659), in their attempt to make French a more refined language, but the salons were nevertheless an ideal milieu for those who wanted to write better and discuss writing. Moreover, salonniers were honnêtes hommes. Honnêteté became an aristocracy of its own. In fact, aristocrats sought to become honnêtes hommes. In this respect, we have mentioned La Rochefoucauld.
Charles Perrault was a member of Paris’s upper middle class, as was Colbert, Louis XIV’s minister of Finance. But, since most of you know the contes, you will have noticed that they feature upward mobility. The genre invited a major, not to say magical, improvement in a character’s life. But it just may be that salonniers and salonnières were attempting to live up to a nobler inner-self than could be bestowed by a mere accident of birth.
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October 9, 2011
 M. Loeffler-Delachaux, Le Symbolisme des contes de fée, 1949, p.7, quoted by Gilbert Rouger in the Préface of his edition of Perrault’s Contes (Paris: Éditions Garnier, 1967), p. XXXI.